I had posted earlier about Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s book Morality without God, an atheist attempt to develop an ethical system of morality without any appeal to God or religion.  I have now finished reading and studying the book.  There were several good points made in the book.  Most of the time that I agreed with him he was criticizing something in Christianity that I don’t view as true biblical Christianity (i.e., his attacks upon Roman Catholic dogma).  I also believe that his book is good in the sense that it helps true Christians know that atheists do think about morality. Sinnott-Armstrong presents the best case for atheist ethics that I have seen although, of course, as a Christian I have serious disagreements with him on almost every page of his book.

There were a couple of points I wanted to highlight here because they mirrored a similar discussion I had when I critiqued Tom Krattenmaker’s book Onward Christian Athletes and USA Today article “What if the end isn’t near?” 

1.  Sinnott-Armstrong (hereafter SA)  gives the same false critque of theism as a view that provides only an option emphasizing the future world instead of meeting needs in today’s world.  SA calls the two options infiniphilia and finiphilia.  SA remarks:

   “The conflict arises only because infiniphiles…love the infinite [eternity] so much that they deny that finite goods, harms, and lives have any meaning at all in the face of eternity.
  The problem with infiniphilia is that it robs us of any incentive to improve this finite world.  Indeed, it gives us reason to destroy this finite world if we need to do so in order to reach an eternal Heaven.  Just think of suicide bombers.  If this is the best that theism can do, then it cannot provide a sound reason to be moral.  Nor can it provide meaning in this life”  (p. 128).

There are some obvious problems with this assessment and the contextual lead up to it in SA’s work.  Christians will not be moved easily by such appeals.  First, he uses suicide bombers as an image when discussing theism in general.  This is a guilt-by-association argument.  Since when is radical Islam the best representative of what theism can do?  At least Krattenmaker did not do that in discussing Christians who believe in a pre-trib rapture in his USA Today article.  SA in taking this approach is taking the low road and giving a low blow that is not deserved.  Second, one wonders about his overall assessment of religionists who believe in heaven and hell—the ones who allegedly overdose on thinking about eternity.  If we limit ourselves to the Christian faith that I represent, one can ask, “Is it true that two thousand years of traditional Christianity (with its belief in heaven and hell) has produced nothing good for the present world?”  SA makes a generalization that is intolerable.   The Bible consistently calls for present action in light of God’s coming kingdom (2 Thess., 1 Peter, among many other books and passages).  Furthermore, what is the evidence on the historical ground so to speak? Are there no hospitals in the name of Christ?  Are there no schools in the name of Christ?  Are there no counseling centers in the name of Christ?  The list could go on and on.  The fact of the matter is that conservative, Bible-believing Christianity has done an awful lot for this present world while at the same time believing that one’s eternal destiny is paramount.  The argument that such belief in eternity devalues the present time is simply wishful thinking on the part of atheists.  The historical record says otherwise.

2.  SA presents a vision of the future where conservative Christianity does not exist.  Toward the end of his book when he looks at what is needed, he comments on the need for dialogue and suggests that an end to the culture wars (if that is to be a desired goal) can only come about  by Christians giving up the offensive doctrine of hell.  He comments on Carlton Pearson, a mega-church pastor and graduate of Oral Roberts who gave up the doctrine of hell and began to promote a “Gospel of Inclusion:”

“The point here is that by giving up traditional doctrines of Hell, Pearson avoids many of the problems for religion that I have raised in this book.  He also undermines some of the motivation for fearing atheists.  Maybe theists can even marry atheists if atheists are not immoral, as I argued, and also not bound for Hell, as Pearson thinks.  It took tremendous courage for Pearson to change his religious views publicly.  That kind of courage is what we need in order to end the culture wars that divide modern societies” (p. 153).

The kind of world that SA envisions is a pluralistic one in which conservative, especially evangelical, Christianity actually does not exist.  It is similar to the argument made by Krattenmaker in Onward Christian Soldiers who argued for a pluralistic religious ministry to athletes that would allow evangelicals to be part of it if they gave up Jesus, the gospel, and hell.  In short, evangelicals could be part of the envisioned world if they quit being evangelicals!  SA’s picture is practically the same.  I am not sure he understands how he is sounding to genuine evangelicals at a time when he wants respectability and especially wants us to stop fearing atheists.

That is why his appeal to ongoing dialogue, which I favor, is still problematic to some degree.  In light of the vision he proposes, the evangelical can wonder if his version of dialogue is like the Borg on Star Trek – resistant is futile; you will be assimilated!  If one thinks this is overly simplistic, I have a question.  Does the pluralistic vision that SA presents allow for a qualified young-earth creationist to teach science in a public college?  Can that happen at Dartmouth?  Will our pluralism really be genuine pluralism or just a scheme to bring about a secular vision of the world? In the late 1800s and early 1900s evolutionists argued that we needed pluralism in public schools.  Creation should not be the only approach to origins in our schools, they said.  To lock the evolutionary model out would be a violation of our pluralistic culture.  Of course, evolution won the day.  And true to their pluralistic vision, they have allowed the teaching of Creation as a model of origins to continue, right?  No, they have become vociferous in championing that only their model can be taught.  There is no pluralism in sight.  Of course, most creationists view this as pure prejudice.  It is historical realities such as these that continue to make the Christian skeptical of the skeptics.